Rights & Liberties

How a Dragnet Snagged Philly’s Poor

It was hard not to find the 2009 Inquirer headline “Violent Criminals Flout Broken Bail System” troubling.

The paper reported that scofflaw defendants owed about $1 billion in forfeited bail judgments (and, it later turned out, another $500 million in other debts) to an overwhelmed Philadelphia court system mired in administrative disarray.

The series of articles, titled “Justice: Delayed, Dismissed, Denied,” grabbed the attention of embarrassed court officials and politicians. The “reforms” that followed, however, included a reckless crusade to collect questionable and sometimes illegitimate debt allegedly owed by hundreds of thousands of Philadelphians — some of it dating back to the early 1970s.

The court's collection efforts relied on records maintained by the Clerk of Quarter Sessions — the office which was abolished in 2010 for keeping terrible records — and third-party firms, some of them unsavory, contracted to hound debtors. As one might expect, the ensuing shakedown was farcical, and prompted loud protests from groups like Community Legal Services.

The courts recently decided to rein in the program, however, erasing all bail debts (though not other court debts) dated before March 3, 2010, and transferring the responsibility of more recent bail debts to the city's Department of Revenue. A notice posted on the website of the First Judicial District (FJD), which runs city courts, obliquely stated that Administrative Judge John W. Herron had done this at “the request of the City of Philadelphia.”

Over the past two years of covering this beat for City Paper, I've seen all sorts of bizarre situations: people blindsided by debt collectors years after they'd completed their prison terms; third-party collections firms threatening people with arrest over decades-old debt they even didn't know they had; one politically connected firm that was itself deep in debt to the city. The Daily News and WHYY told the story of a woman hit with a $900 bill for a hearing she missed in 1990; she'd missed it because she was incarcerated at the time, but was having a terrible time proving it because prison records from before 1991 had been destroyed by water damage.

Even the state Supreme Court acknowledged in 2011, just after the program began, that because of “poor record keeping by the Clerk of Quarter Sessions, the age of most of the debt and a 70 percent unemployment rate among defendants — a large portion of the outstanding debt realistically will never be collected.”

Still, the courts lurched from one strategy to another under the publicly opaque guidance of First Judicial District Deputy Court Administrator Dominic Rossi.

Now, much of the crusade ends as it began: shrouded in mystery. Rossi did not return phone calls asking about the changes. Neither did Mayor Michael Nutter's office. The FJD will retain jurisdiction over non-bail-related debts, and while third-party debt collections appear to have been suspended as of November 2012, the FJD has declined to publicly explain how it plans to proceed.

Last year, I profiled Andre Hawkes, whose debt is not for bail. He says he will continue to make $10 monthly payments.

“I don't have the money to pay that ... I'm raising a child. That's a pair of socks. A gallon of milk. A carton of cereal. But I pay it anyway. I don't want any problems. I don't need any problems,” he says.

Hawkes complains that he was alerted to his debt by a mysterious collector who threatened him with arrest and asked for his credit card number over the phone.

“I would really like for them to just give some clarity in the beginning,” says Hawkes. “Don't wait till five years, 10 years later almost to come out and say, 'Oh, you owe us money.' ... It's not like they're going after the Rockefellers or the Mellons.”

Our economy foments crime, and the criminal-justice system then fortifies the poverty at its root. Maybe it's time to go after America's present-day Rockefellers instead.

This post originally appeared at Philadelphia City Paper and is posted here with permission.

About the reporter

Daniel Denvir

Daniel Denvir

Daniel Denvir is a journalism and research fellow at Harvard Law School's Fair Punishment Project.

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